Instead of focusing on the most productive study habits, students can improve their grades and learning quality just by getting rid of their bad study habits. Reducing these habits might just be enough to handle academics better than before. So what are these damaging study habits? Staying up late and waking up early, long study hours, not knowing what to study, overthinking about the volume of study material, procrastinating till you plan too much, giving up enjoyment, and neglecting food/water/exercise. These habits generally worsen memory, increase fatigue, induce anxiety, and limit learning capacity.
Here’s a list of 7 habits you should avoid, why you should avoid them, and what you can do instead. The source of these habits is sometimes phone addiction.7 bad study habits: 1. Staying up late + waking up early to study, 2. Long study hours, 3. Not knowing what to study, 4. Fixating on the volume of study material, 5. Procrastinating by overplanning, 6. Not enjoying, partying, gaming,… Click To Tweet
- 1. Staying up late and waking up early to study
- 2. Long study hours and massing
- 3. Not knowing what to study
- 4. Fixating on the volume of study material
- 5. Procrastinating by gathering all material and planning too much
- 6. Not enjoying, partying, gaming, dating, etc.
- 7. Neglecting food, water, and exercise
1. Staying up late and waking up early to study
Compromised sleep is always bad for your focus and concentration. And yet, the most popular study method is to study for long late/early hours before the exam with little sleep. Sleep is vital for learning and memory as much as for staying awake and alive.
If it isn’t obvious, let us look at what the research says. There is a clear association between compromised sleep and poor academic performance, especially if the workload is high. A review of many studies shows that poor sleep due to late sleeping and early rising negatively affects academic performance in school and college students. Even non-depressed students who sleep poorly tend to have poor grades. Poor sleep might create a vicious cycle between low academic performance and associated stress which further affects sleep quality.
A study measuring sleep quality with neurocognitive performance (thinking, attention, memory, decision-making skills) and academic performance shows that poor sleep causes a decline in academic performance & cognitive aspects of learning. Staying awake for 24+ continuous hours hampers mental and physical performance as much as having a dangerous blood alcohol level of 0.1%, which is about 3 to 7 drinks consumed within 2 hours by anyone weighing 110 to 240 pounds (50 to 110 kgs).
Studying before bedtime can improve memory for facts through better memory consolidation during sleep, but only for a few days. So students must sleep before a fact-based exam. A common problem for students is remembering something incorrectly or interpreting confusing information incorrectly. Research shows that people recall more false memories after sleep deprivation.
If you have trouble getting adequate quality sleep, try these techniques and/or visit a mental health professional.
Study tip: Sleep.
2. Long study hours and massing
Many students have a habit called “massing,” which is spending hours studying at a stretch (also called cramming). This is over and above college learning hours and homework assignments. Study hours are not proportional to the quality of studying. Breaks and rest between study sessions are essential for your brain to digest everything you’ve learned. Creative insight and memory both improve with breaks. Massing has a problem – the mind wanders while studying for long hours, which reduces focus.
Research generally shows that massing is not as good as chunking, spacing, retrieval practice, or interleaving.
- Chunking: Making time “blocks” of small, meaningful study sessions focused on a topic many times a day or week.
- Spacing: Taking breaks and reviewing the same study material again with gaps.
- Retrieval practice: Actively testing your memory via quizzes, casually remembering, or mock tests.
- Interleaving: Studying related topics together in parallel instead of force-feeding the brain one single topic.
Combining all 4, you get an ideal study method: Interleave 2 or 3 chunks and review them + test yourself with a spacing of a few hours in between 3-4 times a day.
You can use the Pomodoro technique if you want a disciplined approach too. It is an elegant and simple productivity improvement technique that can be applied for completing assignments, reading & reviewing study material, managing study/learning load, etc. Here is how it goes.
- Pick a timer, Set it to 20 or 25 minutes
- Spend 20-25 minutes on a topic (or sub-topics)
- Once the timer rings, stop.
- Take a break of 5 minutes (cycle 1)
- Return to another 20-25 minutes to learn a new topic
- Take a break of 5 minutes (cycle 2)
- After 4 such cycles, take a longer break
I recommend using this study technique when you need to study for long hours, especially before an exam. It is ideal for a quick review because you can systematically cover individual concepts or sets of quick facts one after the other. With this study method, you’ll be able to review many topics in a few days without exhausting yourself with boredom and anxiety. It’ll help you learn something instead of giving the feeling that you’ve studied well – only for the exam to prove you wrong.
Study tip: Don’t study for long hours – study in small chunks with breaks in between
3. Not knowing what to study
Worrying takes up a lot of time and drains you. Academic anxiety worsens when a student has no clue about the contents that need to be studied. Uncertainty facilitates anxiety. Imagine going for an exam and realizing that you’ve skipped a whole chapter because you were unaware.
Knowing the index page and sub-headings should be your first step. Once you know the headings and sub-headings, you can use that “map” or outline to compartmentalize, structure, and remember the contents. The more complex your study material, the more detailed this map should be. This is when note-taking can help. Memory for locations is one of our best memory systems, so leverage it by creating a map of keywords & topics (like a mental index). This mapping of index + information is a part of metamemory which inspires confidence in learning and a quick way to review what you already know. Ideally, you should always be aware of the connections between subheadings, so they support each other like a net.
Study tip: Figure out all the topics you need to learn for an exam well in advance. Ensure you know what you need to know within a topic. Set learning objectives. Ask questions you need answers to. Use your subheadings as a template to learn and remember.
4. Fixating on the volume of study material
Thinking of how much you have to study can be overwhelming and stressful, so breaking down your workload helps. Students often have habitual thoughts like – ‘I have to study 10 chapters in 2 days,’ which damages learning. This can change to ‘I need to study 1/10th of a chapter every few hours with a structured day.’
The Parkinson’s law states that work expands or contracts to fill the time available. Therefore, if you overestimate the time needed to study based on how much there is to study, you’ll eventually consume all of the time you set aside. This could result in a heavy loss of time. You can minimize this problem by giving yourself lesser time than estimated and focusing on a specific task at a time.
What if you are working part-time and have to fixate on how much you have to study? Research actually suggests that students who work part-time for 10-19 hours a week do better at academics than those who don’t work or work more. One reason for this is that work limits how many hours you give to studies and creates a structured day – there is a boundary and balance between studying and not studying. Plus, it incentivizes a student to optimize their routine, so there is less learning and productivity loss due to anxiety/stress and free time.
Study tip: Distribute your learning in small chunks over a long period and restrict how long you take to study a chunk. Set earlier deadlines than anticipated or expected.
5. Procrastinating by gathering all material and planning too much
There are hidden ways in which people procrastinate, such as spending too much time planning & preparing. Waiting for notes or spending hours planning or organizing material may be a way to justify procrastination. A student might procrastinate thinking, “I’ll start studying after I get all of my notes and I’ve planned my life.” Which is essentially wasting time. Procrastination is delaying some anxiety about a future event (in this case, the overwhelming nature of study material put together). This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You might make studying more overwhelming by delaying it through overplanning and then worry or complain about the overwhelming amount of study material. It would be easier for you to study when the opportunity exists. In some cases, this is disguised as self-sabotaging behavior due to a crippling fear of failure or fear of feeling incompetent when exams arrive.
While planning your studies or schedule, stay consistent. Research shows that consistent sleep timing (which then guides your schedule) is better than inconsistent sleep timing for academic performance. Proper scheduling to allow consistent sleep patterns means controlling arousal and light coming from screens because the wakeful energy and light disturb the sleep cycle. So if you have a lot of planning energy, focus on keeping your sleep steady. Consistent sleep improves the ability to deal with negative emotions, which then reduces the chances of procrastination.
Study tip: Start studying when the opportunity arises and stay consistent with your sleep routine. Thinking of worst-case scenarios makes your fears true when they shouldn’t be true.
6. Not enjoying, partying, gaming, dating, etc.
Don’t stop having fun. If you stop having fun, you will probably face mental health issues associated with monotony, depressed moods, social withdrawal, etc. Being a student has its fun side; it shouldn’t be taken away. Thoughts like “If I stop all fun, I’ll get good grades” are common for students, but they are an example of a damaging thought pattern called Heaven’s reward fallacy which leads to feeling anger, frustration, and entitlement. Having fun boosts overall cognition and learning like nothing else.
Research shows that participating in intra-college activities, having fun on campus, and engaging in recreation help students increase their grade-point average (or other scores). Participating in extra-curricular activities like sports, clubs, social interest groups, counseling, guidance, etc., can make school time more enjoyable. When students’ needs are satisfied in a supportive school, they like their school better, and that may motivate them to achieve more. Organized activities can even improve grades for the less-advantaged students.
What about gaming and social media? Moderate gaming is linked with academic growth and development in 10th-grade students. But social media is not clearly related to improved or worsened academic performance. A review of 23 papers suggests that the results are highly mixed. Social media affects mental health and personal growth in good and bad ways. Giving up social media or increasing the time spent on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram might not affect your grades or learning potential. If it is moderate, don’t worry about it.
A meta-analysis of 29 studies with a total sample of 19,000+ students across different grades found that boredom predicts negative academic outcomes. Boredom in class is worse than boredom outside of class. Boredom also negatively affects motivation and optimal study behaviors. You should ideally learn to tolerate a little bit of boredom as a test of your emotional intelligence, but too much boredom can hamper learning.
Even primary school students can benefit from enjoyment. Boredom, emotions, and achievement are tied together and have a reciprocal relationship – Higher achievement may foster more enjoyment and less boredom. And, more enjoyment with less boredom could motivate higher achievement.
Study tip: Have fun and don’t be bored. Avoid making unnecessary sacrifices to earn good grades. Find a way to make learning and life interesting & meaningful.
7. Neglecting food, water, and exercise
Quality food, enough water, and moderate exercise raise baseline focus and concentration and reduce biological fatigue. Research shows that these factors affect academic performance and the cognitive ability of students. If you stay hungry, dehydrated, and kill your physical movement, you will probably suffer during exams. Build habits that take care of this problem. Lacking them also induces severe lethargy – one more enemy.
Hunger and poor access to enough food is linked to worse academic performance. Even for school-going students, a high-quality meal appears to improve test scores. A balanced meal with sufficient nutrients like B-complex, Vitamin D, Omega-3 fatty acids, and less sugar + carbs with more fibers and grains is needed to maintain healthy brain functioning. Nutrients are needed to form better memories and reduce brain fog. Food insecurity (lack of access to food) reduces a student’s GPA directly and also indirectly via mental health issues. These issues may range from stress and anxiety about basic needs, body image issues, monetary stress, etc. The study was conducted on over 7000 students in the California University system.
Drinking water and avoiding thirst are directly related to better cognitive performance. Dehydration can lead to cognitive impairment. In the simplest sense, water affects blood flow to the brain, and blood flow brings oxygen to the brain for proper functioning.
Exercise promotes mental functioning, and research shows that those who exercise (even a little bit) enjoy superior cognitive abilities. This directly impacts the learning ability of students. Exercise via gym or sports is ideal as it fits with other needs students have – meeting others, finding friends, dating, etc.
Study tip: Have 2-3 liters of water per day; don’t skip food to the point of fatigue and nutritional deficiencies; do a few hours of exercise per week. Download an app for reminders if you need them. Try Streaks, HabitNow, Habitify, or Habitica.
Related: Tests can induce anxiety in the testing room or exam hall. Follow these quick behavioral techniques to reduce test anxiety there and then. They include using smells, relaxation techniques, placebos, clothing hacks, etc.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.